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Seeing Bobby Kennedy in Barack Obama

Forty years after RFK's assassination, Barack picks up where Bobby left off.

| Thu Jun. 5, 2008 2:00 AM EDT
It would be easy to make too much of the similarities between Robert F. Kennedy, who died on the night when the Democratic presidential nomination came within his grasp, 40 years ago today, and Barack Obama, who has just firmly taken hold of it. The times are different, and so are the men. But then again.

Hope, like greatness, is a thing some men have thrust upon them. They emerge as repositories for the finer yearnings of a confused and bitter nation, a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected not as the people we are, but as the people we would like to be—and may, because of them, inch slightly closer to becoming. Whether or not they are worthy of such faith is, in the end, less important than the fact that they inspire us to be more worthy ourselves.

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This is why it's a mistake to dismiss Obama as being "only" inspirational. Despite the example set by our current president, competence is not all that difficult to come by in Washington, DC. (In fact, our permanent civil service could get most things done much more effectively without any political leadership at all.) But someone who can make us believe that this country of ours might actually pull itself together and become a little bit more compassionate or a little bit more just, someone who encourages us to dedicate ourselves to that goal rather than to just lowering our taxes or paying less for gasoline—that's something found far more rarely inside the Beltway.

For my generation, I suppose that someone was Bobby Kennedy, though I'm not sure I realized it at the time. On the war, there wasn't much difference between Kennedy and his rival on the left, Eugene McCarthy. They both wanted to get us out of Vietnam. VP Hubert Humphrey may have been the insider candidate, but he came out of the highly progressive Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (as did McCarthy, and late Senator Paul Wellstone), and hewed to a liberal platform that would seem radical by the standards of today's post-Democratic Leadership Council Democratic Party. By contrast, Bobby Kennedy, in many ways, had only recently evolved into a true progressive. And some saw Kennedy, who got into the race only after Lyndon Johnson's poor performance in the New Hampshire primary, as an opportunist who was strong on rhetoric but short on substance.

Even Kennedy's most visible virtue, his deep concern for the poor, had its problems. The Kennedy poverty program, run by Sargent Shriver and taken up by Lyndon Johnson after Jack Kennedy's assassination, quickly became a pork-barrel operation. In Chicago, for example, millions of federal dollars were pumped into Mayor Richard Daley's machine. None of the programs were conceived to threaten the status quo, which made them too tame for a lot of activists in the late 1960s. They were bootstrap projects, where the government would provide the poor with job training, education, and health care to help them elevate themselves to a point where they could jump off into the middle class. For the most part, this never happened.

Two parts of the poverty program—Head Start, the program for young children, and Neighborhood Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance to low-income residents—did prove lasting and truly valuable. And some funds managed to filter through to the likes of Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer on the South Side of Chicago who advocated confrontation with the Daley machine, and encouraged his groups to engage in civil disobedience if need be. (Alinsky himself, however, knew how to work the system when he needed to. He reminded me of an old-school labor organizer—talking tough but in the end always willing to cut a deal in the back room. And I can remember radicals attacking him for his lack of revolutionary fervor, in the same way, incidentally, they attacked Ralph Nader, who was seen as a patsy for the legal profession. "A guy has to be a political idiot," Alinsky scoffed at radicals back then, "to say all power comes out of the barrel of a gun when the other side has the guns."

Saul Alinsky believed that power flowed up from the streets and was there for the taking, if only people believed they could do so. By 1968, Bobby Kennedy had taken up the idea of "decentralization" (in part, as an alternative to welfare), championing a new Community Action Program (not unlike a more radical model advanced by Students for a Democratic Society), which would allow federal anti-poverty projects—and funds—to be run by the populations they served.

Maybe that had something to do with what began to happen during Bobby Kennedy's brief presidential campaign, when he went out into the streets in the spring of 1968. Or maybe it was just something about the man. My friend Jack Newfield, the late Village Voice reporter, used to say that Kennedy was more priest than politician. Newfield often accompanied Kennedy during a campaign that took him to Indian reservations, into Appalachia, through Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant or East L.A., to small gatherings with family farmers, to classrooms where he sat down and talked with children as if they were actual human beings. Newfield recalled that on a trip through Watts a few days before RFK's death, "He said to me, 'I want you to see what I see. And I see this ecstasy in the eyes of blacks and Mexican Americans.'" The television cameras saw it, too, as they followed him to places they usually wouldn't dream of going, and millions of Americans in their living rooms saw it. You can still see it today, in the old footage—as he walks or rides through the urban streets, people reached out to touch him as they would a talisman, as if the touch alone would empower and dignify them.

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